DennisBeaverMarch 10, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Does Nationwide Insurance Company have a policy of discriminating against people who are overweight? Do they care about fairly and honestly settling auto accident cases? It seems a very strange turn-around for what has historically been a very credible insurance company. After reading this story, you decide.

Our story begins in Bakersfield with a minor, three-car accident. Car 1, driven by Richard, stopped for a red light. He was rear-ended by car 2 slowing for the same red light when it was hit by car 3. As this accident was at low speed, there wasn’t a lot of property damage.

Low impact can still injure

In a low impact, slow speed accident, you can still be hurt, even if you car has sustained minor damage. While it is usually true that the more physical damage to the car, the greater injury to occupants, as a police officer for 10 years, I have seen many cases of significant injury, especially rear-end accidents where occupants have some health or physical condition — such as weight issues or disc disease — which makes them more likely to be injured.

A large person involved in a minor accident has a greater risk of striking the steering wheel with their chest and suffering whiplash symptoms. I have seen many cases of older drivers, symptom free, with serious disc disease, suddenly wind up with major neurological problems after whiplash accidents. They were what we call egg shells, fragile, yet feeling perfectly fine before the accident, according to Bakersfield private investigator Riley Parker.

Mr. Parker was quick to point out that “there are many insurance companies who try to wiggle out of their legal responsibility, using bogus-biomechanical science, claiming that no one could possibly be hurt in some of these low speed accidents, and to that I say, garbage!”

Our experts say you can’t be hurt!

Richard and his 9-year-old daughter were more than a bit shaken up. “We were both wearing seat belts, and thrown into the seat back. It was strange. There was such little damage to my car, yet my shoulder, neck and back hurt and so we went to a hospital emergency room to be checked out,” he told me. The Emergency Room physician wrote in his chart, “Myofascial neck and back pain. Bed rest and Motrin, 60 mg intravenous Toradol now.” Toradol is an anti-inflammatory, equivalent to morphine. It is never used unless there is a serious reason. He was also prescribed Ultram — a potent opiate pain medication — for “break through pain.”

But Nationwide — representing the third car — whose motto is, “we are the on-your- side company,” has a different view of things. They sent a check for Richard’s property damage, clearly accepting liability, and then two of the most uncaring adjusters I have met echoed the same story. “We had our bio-mechanic expert look at the physics of this accident and conclude that statistically, no normal person could ever be hurt. Therefore we are denying their injury claims.”

When I pointed out that Richard is somewhat overweight, and that could be why he was so banged up, both adjusters laughed. In fact, one Nationwide adjuster, Ted, said, “Our experts tell us that if you are fat, it provides extra padding so you won’t be hurt as bad!” And then, when I asked them if I should conclude that Nationwide has a policy of actively discriminating against overweight people, they both said “You conclude what you want to! We aren’t paying a cent.”

The higher you go the more stubborn they get

I have normally found that when a case of this nature is brought to the attention of a the Public Relations Department, common sense prevails and a solution is found. That’s what usually happens with ethical companies, but I have to wonder about Nationwide. I spoke with spokesman Mike Palmer, and it was like talking to a zombie. The poor guy can’t seem to answer any questions or talk.

Our conversation went like this: “Speak with the claims supervisor.”

“But they already said they were denying the claim!”

Mike refused to answer one important question: Does Nationwide discriminate against overweight people when handling claims? I repeated this several times, “Mike, it sure looks to me like Nationwide is actively discriminating against overweight people. Are you?” Silence was his response. I will take that to mean “Yes, we are.”

What does this mean for you if you are overweight?

By far the most maddening conversation I had was with a “director” of Nationwide Insurance, Greg Mareno, who was quick to tell me that he sleeps well every night, and denies claims routinely when his “biomechanic expert” tells him that there is a “statistically low chance of anyone being hurt.” Mr. Mareno said this without ever looking at Richard’s medical records. Instead of doing what California law requires — and paying for the medical treatment — Nationwide’s “Director” laughed. When I raised the issue of discrimination against people who are overweight, he hung up.

By the way, we are only talking of $2,700 in ER bills and x-ray charges, not a lot. Is there a message here from Nationwide Insurance for the 65 percent of Americans who are overweight and the 25 percent who are significantly overweight? The impression I get is that Nationwide can be seen as engaging in discrimination and in using questionable science to justify denying legitimate claims. While I am not overweight, if I were, seeing how they are treating this completely innocent man and his daughter, this is the last insurance company on earth I would ever want to insure my car.

There is something frightening about the way Nationwide approaches these cases. Regardless of the fact that you are actually injured, by using a paid-to-help-us-deny claims bio-mechanic “expert” their adjusters and management engage in the worst kind of discrimination; against people who are hurt, but who “just shouldn’t ever be hurt.”

So now Richard must go to Small Claims Court and sue the owner and driver of the car that caused the accident, resulting in a potential bad credit mark for them. Nationwide needs to change its motto. “We will get you sued!” seems much more fitting.

Over the years I have met and spoken with many responsible and decent claims adjusters working for Nationwide. I am sure there are many who still remain with the company. I’d just like to know where they are.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.